There is something that has bothered us for a long time about ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. And now that there are signatures on a peace deal with the former ruling regime of Afghanistan, those concerns rise to the surface as disturbing conclusions about the principles guiding the Trump administration’s approach to national security.
The news over the weekend was that the administration struck a deal with the Taliban that will have the United States withdraw from the country in 14 months if the rogue regime meets certain criteria, including stopping attacks on U.S. forces in the country. The top line is that the White House can claim it is bringing an end to America’s longest war, and the ancillary claim made by Donald Trump is that this agreement will now pit the Taliban against the Islamic state as it tries to compete for space in Afghanistan.
Our concerns start with the fact that, with this agreement, the Trump administration offers legitimacy to an organization best known for using a soccer stadium to carry out public torture and executions, for oppressing women and girls and for imposing an extreme and totalitarian ideology on the people of Afghanistan. And, of course, the Taliban also harbored the leaders of al-Qaida while they planned and carried out terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001.
By negotiating with the Taliban while excluding the democratically elected government of Afghanistan from those talks, the Trump administration started from the position of surrendering its moral credibility. The administration was looking for a way out of the war, not a path toward actual peace. Let’s be clear: There has always been a viable and instant path to peace if the Taliban would only take it. That required the Taliban, which seeks to dominate the free people of Afghanistan, to lay down its weapons, return home and voice its views on society through the democratic process.
That the Taliban has sought to propagate its power through the cartridge box rather than the ballot box has always been the source of the ongoing military struggle. Nothing changes now that American military forces and their NATO partners will hit the exits. In fact, we can expect the Taliban will be emboldened in the quest to reimpose an autocratic regime over the millions of people who have been working assiduously to create a democratic society in Afghanistan.
The comparison we often hear in regard to Afghanistan is Vietnam, as in the United States is embroiled in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict. But there is a very different Vietnam parallel to keep in mind: The United States is about to give up on a democratic government that will be left alone in a violent part of the world as it fights a brutal ideology. And unlike in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Trump administration isn’t likely to follow in the footsteps of the Ford administration, which granted asylum en masse to the Vietnamese who managed to flee after their democratic government fell.
Afghanistan is a war that this country is capable of waging. While any life lost in combat is heartbreaking, and it’s crucial that we honor and care for the many thousands of military personnel who’ve returned home with both physical and mental injuries, in the 18 years of war in Afghanistan we’ve had fewer U.S. combat deaths than the number of people killed on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001. But once abandoned by the U.S., it’s unlikely the free people of Afghanistan will be able to push back against the forces that have given every indication they will target the very heart of democratic values. Instead, the war will go on, and civilian deaths will increase. The only real question is whether the president of the United States has the courage, the tenacity and the foresight to join it, to build alliances in that fight, and, yes, to take the political lumps that such leadership requires.
Trump will have his talking point heading into reelection, but each time he talks about ending the country’s longest war, we will know that he is really referring to surrendering the mantle of moral leadership handed to him by a long succession of American presidents.